Most wars are miscalculations in brinkmanship. It is like a "smarter than you" challenge turning into "crazier than thou" contest gone tragically out of control. History repeats itself at a higher cost because most leaders are determined to make their own mistakes. Almost everyone knows what to do in principle but is too busy in practice to avoid a point of no return.

In the war game of nations over Iraq two conflicting figures equally dismissive of UN inspectors are U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Iraq President Saddam Hussein. They had known each other well since the eighties. If an isolated duel between just the two in that former love current hate relationship could settle the issue, then a likely date could have been set for 14 February, Valentines Day. Unfortunately, modern weapons of armed combat have widely expanded the likelihood of human collateral damage between two determined combatants.

A growing trend to explore the options more cautiously has little to do with the five new members of the Security Council as some politicians and analysts seem to speculate. Non-permanent members do not carry the might of permanent ones with veto powers. They may shift the nature or timing of a debate but in the last resort will go along with the overwhelming consensus. Regrettably, governments of the region directly concerned did not take timely initiatives as provided for in the U.N. Charter. Sporadic reactions in an emergency do not make up for lack of preventive diplomacy.

A window of opportunity through the Security Council, however brief, was mainly due to an understanding among key powers to work through the United Nations. An impressive presentation by U.S Secretary of State Colin Powell earlier this month was made within the framework of the Council, not outside it. A disappointing day for him a week later need not derail his diplomatic pursuit; nor should it be misperceived by Baghdad as a license to stall on its committed obligations. Despite naturally divergent views, all members agreed to continue working together.

People watching television cannot help but feel that war is inevitable. World leaders and their diplomats, however, cannot help but seek an alternative. Peace is not just an ambitious international ideal but a vested national interest. While the United States is generally perceived as raring to go to war, it continued to work through the United Nations even as it raised the military option, which some diplomats would argue had obtained specific results. For example, for four years Iraq had refused the inspectors, but only four days after President Bush's appearance at the United Nations it agreed to their unconditional return.

Military leaders, except those advising television networks, will readily mention that the most productive alternative to using force is displaying it effectively and the most successful means of winning a war it not having to go through with it. In a tentative period between war and peace, a major risk often lies in self-appointed mediators who would mislead or misread either side while angling for a political commission. An equally underestimated risk is represented by some of those who are focused narrowly on their own political turf or personal fortune as described by the limerick: "When the missiles go up where will they come down? It is not my department, says Werner von Brauen".

At any rate, Iraq by now is broken down into three parts while under no fly zones . The Kurdish controlled area has an autonomous government; the south is for all practical purposes open territory for lucrative contraband or semi legitimate business with neighboring countries. Only the central region is tightly controlled by the official government.

If diplomacy is war through other means, then the war against Iraq is already on. It is conducted by a Four Star General who happens to be a former chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. If victory is defined as overwhelming the political will of an adversary and forcing on it desired concessions, the Iraq leadership has already given in on all what it had adamantly rejected earlier, short of change in the regime that had mainly survived on making external deals to cover internal repression.

It maybe that the Iraqi leader is sending incrementally tempting offers he hopes will not be refused. After all, he is in the business of survival and believes that big powers are in the business of business. An experienced Iraqi diplomat visiting abroad on medical grounds or an enterprising journalist visiting Baghdad on a media assignment may have a better clue. The recent meeting of the Security Council provided a valuable breathing spell to reach a credible understanding. While every effort is being made to maintain the United States within a U.N. concensus, it will be catastrophic if the Iraqi leadership miscalculated the international situation and squandered an increasingly rare opportunity for a peaceful alternative. It is about time to save a combustible region from the first lethal war of the twenty first century. It is also time to allow its tormented people a chance to fully develop their human potential. The period allocated for more effective inspections is supposed to be used also for behind the scene contacts. If fruitful, whatever the eventual deal and wherever discreetly negotiated, any side anywhere would be welcome to declare its own version of victory. Surely the U.N. Secretary-General will be available to provide a convenient ladder to climb down from and an appropriate fig leaf.